Displaced Palestinians gathered at a makeshift camp inside the Al-Shifa hospital gardens, where Mohammed is being treated. Photo: Getty
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Under fire: what happened next to injured Mohammed and his family

Two weeks ago Donald Macintyre reported from Gaza on the plight of ten-year-old Mohammed Badran, blinded in an Israeli air strike. Here, he gives an update on his treatment. 

It was, said Dr Ghassan Abu-Sitta, one of the most difficult days he had spent in the operating room of the burns unit at Al-Shifa Hospital. It wasn’t just the severity of Mohammed Badran’s facial injuries, nor that, as the doctor soon discovered, the ten-year-old would need complex microsurgery unavailable in Gaza to replace his missing eye with a prosthesis. It wasn’t even that Mohammed did not understand that he had been blinded by the Israeli air strike on his family home in the Nuseirat refugee camp and kept asking the nurses, “Why have you switched the lights off?” It was that when Dr Abu-Sitta looked at the child – as he did for hours, while he carefully reconstructed his upper jaw with tissue from his back – he was continually reminded that Mohammed was the same age as one of his own sons.

That day, amid the chaos at the hospital in Gaza City, Dr Abu-Sitta told me that Mohammed’s whole family had been killed in the air strike. I reported it in this magazine – a single paragraph in a long piece. What neither of us knew then was that the reason Mohammed was alone in the burns unit was not that the rest of his family had been wiped out, but that they were either elsewhere in Shifa or at another hospital in Deir el-Balah.

In Gaza, however, happy endings are always conditional: six of Mohammed’s eight siblings were hurt, four of them critically. His 17-year-old sister, Eman, who had suffered severe leg injuries, was soon moved to the next bed. His mother, Taghreed, was able to stay with both of them.

But the story of the Badrans was not over yet. The day after I filed an update to let readers know the family was alive, it became obsolete: on 9 August, Mohammed’s father, Nidal, was killed in an air strike on a mosque in Nuseirat.

The 44-year-old was a policeman – and therefore on the Hamas payroll, as he had once been on that of the Palestinian Authority. He was killed, his brother claims, while preparing for dawn prayers. Residents near the mosque were warned by the Israel Defence Forces to get out and someone alerted the local imam, who then left. No one warned the other three men in the mosque at the time.

Whatever Nidal Badran was doing that morning, it is now almost certain he and the men killed with him were Hamas activists. Described by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights as “members of an armed group”, they may have belonged to Hamas’s military wing. Either way, the targeting of the Badrans’ house days earlier was surely no accident.

The unfurling fate of the Badran family goes to the heart of the debate around Israel’s actions in Gaza and the high number of children killed in air strikes there.

The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has identified 72 Gazan families of three or more people that have been killed in their own home in the course of Operation Protective Edge: 547 people in all, including 250 minors, 125 women under the age of 60 and 29 men and women aged 60 or above. Many of these families no doubt included at least one militant from Hamas or another armed group. In other cases, there is no evidence as yet that they did. B’Tselem and other human rights groups, such as al-Mezan and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, argue strongly that there is no justification for the high number of casualties among civilian relatives.

In the case of the Badran family, Israel appeared to recognise this. Last weekend it allowed Mohammed, Eman and their badly wounded 13-year-old brother, Ibrahim, out of Gaza through the Erez crossing after two Spanish charities offered to fund their evacuation. Their mother was refused a permit to cross with them; an aunt accompanied them instead. Mohammed has since had surgery at al-Khalidi Hospital in Amman and after two weeks doctors will assess if he still needs to travel to Spain for further treatment.

The Israeli military has repeatedly insisted that it does not target civilians, and it blames Hamas for operating out of civilian areas – which in itself is a violation of international humanitarian law. B’Tselem points out that the attacks on family homes contradict several principles of humanitarian law: the distinction between civilian and military targets; the idea that violation by one party does not reciprocally justify violation of it by the other; and, above all, “proportionality”. Responsibility for the “harsh consequences” of the air strikes policy, B’Tselem argues, rests with “Israel’s government and top military commanders who authorised it, despite the foreseeable horrific results”.

Mohammed Badran appears to be a victim of that policy. But at least he – and most of his family – are alive. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot